The Age of Discovery, or the Age of Exploration (sometimes also, particularly regionally, Age of Contact or Contact Period), is an informal and loosely defined term for the early modern period approximately from the 15th century to the 18th century in European history, in which sea-faring European nations explored regions across the globe.
The extensive overseas exploration, led by the Portuguese and the Spanish, emerged as a powerful factor in European culture, most notably the European discovery of the Americas. It also marks an increased adoption of colonialism as a national policy in Europe. Several lands previously unknown to Europeans were discovered by them during this period, though most were already inhabited.
European exploration outside the Mediterranean started with the Portuguese discoveries of the Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and Azores in 1419 and 1427 respectively, then the coast of West Africa after 1434 until the establishment of the sea route to India in 1498 by Vasco da Gama. The Crown of Castile (Spain) sponsored the transatlantic voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Americas between 1492 and 1504, and the first circumnavigation of the globe between 1519 and 1522 by the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan (completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano). These discoveries led to numerous naval expeditions across the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, and land expeditions in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia that continued into the late 19th century, followed by the exploration of the polar regions in the 20th century.
European overseas exploration led to the rise of global trade and the European colonial empires, with the contact between the Old World (Europe, Asia, and Africa) and the New World (the Americas), as well as Australia, producing the Columbian exchange, a wide transfer of plants, animals, food, human populations (including slaves), communicable diseases and culture between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. The Age of Discovery and later European exploration allowed the mapping of the world, resulting in a new worldview and distant civilizations coming into contact. At the same time, new diseases were propagated, decimating populations not previously in contact with the Old World, particularly concerning Native Americans. The era also saw the enslavement, exploitation, military conquest, and economic dominance and spread of European civilization and superior technology by Europe and its colonies over native populations.
The Portuguese began systematically exploring the Atlantic coast of Africa in 1418, under the sponsorship of Infante Dom Henrique (Prince Henry). Under the direction of Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese developed a new, much lighter ship, the caravel, which could sail farther and faster, and, above all, was highly maneuverable and could sail much nearer the wind, or into the wind. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias reached the Indian Ocean by this route.
In 1492, the Catholic Monarchs of Castile and Aragon funded Christopher Columbus's plan to sail west to reach the Indies by crossing the Atlantic. Columbus discovered a continent uncharted by most Europeans (though it had begun to be explored and was temporarily colonized by the Norse some 500 years earlier). Later, it was called America after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who realized that it was a "new world". To prevent conflict between Portugal and Castile (the crown under which Columbus made the voyage), four papal bulls were issued to divide the world into two regions of exploration, where each kingdom had exclusive rights to claim newly discovered lands. These were modified by the Treaty of Tordesillas, ratified by Pope Julius II.
In 1498, a Portuguese expedition commanded by Vasco da Gama reached India by sailing around Africa, opening up direct trade with Asia. While other exploratory fleets were sent from Portugal to northern North America, in the following years Portuguese India Armadas also extended this Eastern oceanic route, touching sometimes South America and by this way opening a circuit from the New World to Asia (starting in 1500, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral), and explored islands in the South Atlantic and Southern Indian Oceans. Soon, the Portuguese sailed further eastward, to the valuable Spice Islands in 1512, landing in China one year later. In 1513, Spanish Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and reached the "other sea" from the New World. Thus, Europe first received news of the eastern and western Pacific within a one-year span around 1512. East and west exploration overlapped in 1522, when a Castilian (Spanish) expedition, led by Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan and later by Spanish Basque navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano, sailing westward, completed the first circumnavigation of the world, while Spanish conquistadors explored the interior of the Americas, and later, some of the South Pacific islands.
Since 1495, the French, the English and the Dutch entered the race of exploration after learning of these exploits, defying the Iberian monopoly on maritime trade by searching for new routes, first to the western coasts of North and South America, through the first English and French expeditions (starting with the first expedition of John Cabot in 1497 to the north, in the service of England, followed by the French expeditions to South America and later to North America), and into the Pacific Ocean around South America, but eventually by following the Portuguese around Africa into the Indian Ocean; discovering Australia in 1606, New Zealand in 1642, and Hawaii in 1778. Meanwhile, from the 1580s to the 1640s, Russians explored and conquered almost the whole of Siberia, and Alaska in the 1730s.
Between the 12th and 15th centuries the European economy was transformed by the interconnecting of river and sea trade routes, causing Europe to become one of the world's most prosperous trading networks.:345
Before the 12th century, the main obstacle to trade east of the Strait of Gibraltar was lack of commer